At The Races

Madras youth's wishes come true

by: Photo By Susan Mathney - Matt Steward gets ready to paint his Chevelle.

   Fifteen-year-old Matthew Steward may have Cystic Fibrosis, but he certainly isn't letting it slow him down.
   These days his world revolves around dirt track racing at the Madras Speedway, and his head is still spinning from the weekend he was treated like a celebrity at the Portland International Raceway, compliments of the Make A Wish Foundation.
   His passion for racing began after his family moved to Madras from Burns a year ago in May. He had been on the track team in Burns and was president of the Boys and Girls Club there, but hadn't found his niche yet in Madras.
   Then one weekend his dad Steve Laughlin, who works as a mechanic at Ira's Wrecking Yard, took Matt to the car races at the Madras Speedway, and he was hooked.
   "At the race they mentioned a junior class was getting started. So, I talked to Wayne Simpson, who owns Bend Recyclers wrecking yard, and he said all I needed to do was buy a car, gut it, put in a roll cage and go," Matt said.
   Hearing about Matt's interest, his uncle gave him his first car, a 1978 Bonneville Pontiac, which he "gutted" or stripped down to just a frame, siding, driver's seat, steering wheel and motor.
   To get the feel of the track Matt "mudded-in" for a month, circling his Bonneville around the watered-down dirt track to help flatten it and get it race-ready before events. He still needed to install a roll cage before he could race, and was saving up the $250 to purchase one.
   Another break came the day he was at Bud's Muffler shop and a man approached him with an offer.
   "He asked if I wanted to buy a race car that was ready to go for $250. I ran home and got Steve and he looked at it and I ended up getting (the Chevy Chevelle) for my 15th birthday," Matt said.
   He and Steve got busy, taking the 400 cubic inch motor out of the Bonneville and installing it in the Chevelle, and that weekend Matt was ready to race.
   It was just Matt racing against another teen, Justin Simpson, in the junior class at first, but eventually a few other kids joined.
   He competed as car No. 64B in five races last summer, taking third place in his very first race, and second place in his second race. He went out with a bang, when he blew up the Bonneville's motor on the last race of the season.
   In the meantime, at Madras High Matt met a female drag racer named Amanda Bailey, who became his girlfriend. He took advanced welding and small gas motor classes, which helped him work on his cars.
   He also had his cystic fibrosis to deal with, a condition where excessive mucous builds up in the lungs. "I was born with CF and have to have clean-outs every six months, where they flush my whole body or I get sick real bad. I take about $3,000 worth of medications a month, with seven pills before each meal," Matt related.
   In late March he was at Doernbecher's Children's Hospital in Portland for sinus surgery because of problems connected to his CF, when a lady came in to talk to him about the Make A Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of children with chronic illnesses.
   Matt had known about the program, but had never taken advantage of it. This time, however, he inquired about making a wish. At first he thought he would like a computer, but then he decided he'd like to spend a day at the Portland International Raceway (PIR), and visit the racing pit. He also wanted professional scales to balance the weight of his own race car for better performance.
   Some men from Make A Wish came to talk to him, and two months later Matt learned that not only he, but his entire family was receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to Portland International Raceway June 20-23 for the G.I. Joe 200 race.
   Matt, his dad Steve, mom Tina, and 16-year-old sister Ashley, were chauffeured from their hotel suite to the races in a limousine and on Saturday had many more surprises in store.
   His parents were as exited as he was. "Saturday we did the whole behind the scenes bit, got to be in the race pit, and had a blast," his mom said.
   Matt was hardly prepared for what happened next. He got to drop the yellow flag to start the races, hung out all day on the track with the pit crew of Pacific Coast Motor Sports, and when their race driver Alex Figge's car sped by Matt noticed a sticker emblazoned with "Co-Driver Matthew Steward" on the side.
   When it came time to present his gift, Matt got not only the scales he had asked for, but the autographed checkered and green race flags, $150 in cash to use for race entry fees back home, racing seats for his car, and a pile of primo sound equipment for his "date car."
   "I was shocked at all the gifts, all I expected was the scales. It was the funnest time," Matt said.
   The final day, Sunday, he was interviewed live on the AM Northwest TV program with Adrianne Ferdinandez, the winner of the G.I. Joe race.
   Back in Madras, Matt was excited for the new racing season to start.
   "I work on my car all the time, every night. It's out at my friend Trini Ortiz's house. He lets me borrow his shop and I'm painting it tonight," Matt said recently, adding, "For payback I'm going to help Trini work on his cars."
   Things are different this year. Besides painting the Chevelle white, he's replaced the blown 400 Pontiac motor with a 350 Chevy motor, has new springs and shocks, will race as No. 10, and has new sponsors: Ortiz is his main sponsor, providing the transmission, shop and assistance, Bud's Radiator for the muffler, and Wayne Simpson for the motor.
   Racing isn't a cheap hobby. It costs $65 per race to enter, since Matt has to pay for both himself and Steve, who serves as his pit crew, usually assisted by a couple of Matt's friends and his girlfriend.
   There is also more competition now. "Last year there were about five kids, this year there are about 13 my age. Lots of people are getting into it," he said.
   Matt's CF hasn't interfered with his racing, and safety is the main concern. When he's on the race track Matt wears the mandatory fire suit, neck brace, helmet and racing gloves to protect him in case of a wreck. But it does tire him out.
   "When he's racing he gets worn out. He goes out (to the track) at 2 p.m., and by the time he's back and gets the car put away it's 2 a.m. So, we let him sleep all day the day after," his mom said.
   When Matt's Chevelle hits the Madras Speedway this summer he will be driving with a duel purpose, he indicated, holding up a sign that will adorn the top of his car which reads: "Drive Out CF."